Curt Steinhorst - Fighting Burnout

Intro:

Welcome to Beyond Speaking with Brian Lord, a podcast featuring deeper conversations with the world's top speakers.

Brian Lord:

I'm Brian Lord, your host of the Beyond Speaking Podcast. And today we have with us Curt Steinhorst. Curt, thanks for coming on.

Curt Steinhorst:

Thanks for having me on Brian.

Brian Lord:

So you've spent 10 years setting attention and focus. You're an expert on generations. You're a best-selling author. And you know, today you're here to talk to us about the future of work, about burnout, about how companies can deal with their employees, going back to work, staying home, doing a hybrid, those sorts of things, and how to do it in the most productive way possible while still retaining focus, which is a lot of stuff I'm putting a lot on you right here. So first of all, you know, as companies are going back to work what's the biggest issue you feel like they're facing and how can they handle it?

Curt Steinhorst:

Yeah, I think it's interesting the term "back to work" because that is what a lot of people are using, but, but what we actually see is that people were more productive than they have ever been when they were working from home. And so we're looking at a, at a, an employee base, that's going back into an office. Now having found ways to be productive, having had the space to be flexible. And, and so in some ways they're, they're actually going back more burnout and the real risk, the real danger is that organizations would think that the solution is just to go back to how things were as if before the pandemic, everything about the way we were working was just going wonderfully well. It's like we were already having incredible amounts of burnout of disengagement. $25 billion in annual spending on leadership development with no major improvements in nearly every employee engagement category. So we definitely don't want to be thinking in terms of going back to what it was like before.

Brian Lord:

What are some of the data points that you're, you're seeing that that helped give you this viewpoint?

Curt Steinhorst:

Yeah, so first the highest rates of burnout we've ever experienced, like in fact, 91% of people, this is a Deloitte study showed that are having significant levels of stress right now. 41% of people are considering leaving their job actively considering it, which last I checked, most companies don't have in their plan to replace half their team. Right. And so work-life balance, which is an interesting concept in and of itself. But every measure of work-life balance has gotten worse people. Statistically are working an hour earlier, an hour later than pre pandemic. And perhaps the most interesting is the exponential rise in digital communication and the amount of information people are responsible for. If you take- get this February 2020 and compare it to February 2021, the difference in the number of emails sent was 40.6 billion more emails sent. Uh and not just those meetings I thought that before the pandemic that we had way too many meetings, people couldn't, they couldn't get work done. And then we sent everyone home and it was, as if leaders said, we don't know if you're working, so we're going to make sure you can't right. So it's going to be 148% increase in the amount of time captive in meetings. So these are you know, all of these come together to produce a pretty bleak and an interesting moment for leaders.

Brian Lord:

How do people get more done? I know you talk a lot about focus and attention. Employees want their employees to get more done. Leaders, want their teams to get more done. How, what advice would you give to those leaders right now in this, in this situation? If it's not more meetings?

Curt Steinhorst:

Yeah. Yeah. Great question. And I, if I were to simplify it, human productivity is driven primarily by focused attention and it's obstructed by nearly everything else. So if you want your people to get more done, if you want them to be more productive, if you want them to be more efficient, then the simple question is how do you design work and how do you create rules and communications and collaboration in a way that doesn't reward responsiveness and constant interruption?

Brian Lord:

How do you- how does that fit in with customer service?

Curt Steinhorst:

Customer service? So really what we're talking about is attention, right? And focused attention is a certain type that allows us to the world disappears. We zoom in, we say nothing else matters, nothing else exists. And that's actually incredibly pleasurable. It creates incredible gains and innovation and productivity. When you turn this over to customer service there is no better way to reveal value to a customer than giving them your undivided attention. It's the most precious gift that we can give. And so if we want to be great at customer service, how do we not have so much noise coming at people that are trying to do this job, that they actually lose the capacity to be fully present for the people that they're supposed to be serving.

Brian Lord:

I know, a lot of times people talk about permissions. Like you have permission to not do this. Like how does a leader give their people permission to focus?

Curt Steinhorst:

That you have permission to not be available. That's probably the fastest and easiest way that, that leaders, instead of assuming that the way we know that you're working and that you're a team player is how fast you respond on slack that we actually reward. And, and, and, and we reinforce block out times where people are expected not to interrupt each other where, and so I think that's the most important piece is when can you be fully unavailable because we trust you and we're measuring the right things, rather than just measuring how many hours a day you are contributing to non-important conversations.

Brian Lord:

What are, what are some of the right things- I know it's different for every company, what are some of the right things for leaders to measure?

Curt Steinhorst:

Yeah. Ultimately we want to measure outcomes and outputs. That's the, how do we measure that? The, the work that is being done is generating a result. And we want to measure whether, whether the result is being accomplished within a certain period of time. And ideally what we want to do is we want to let our technology, self-report it, rather than asking people to spend part of their time, having to say what they're doing and the other part of their time having to do it. So how do we work within systems that actually create visibility for other members of the team, without anyone having to do extra work?

Brian Lord:

What are- I know the pandemic has been a big problem, but what are some of the benefits of it as it comes from the pandemic as it comes through these different things that you're talking about?

Curt Steinhorst:

Yes, it's really important for us to remember a few of these key lessons because it will help us understand how we can make sure we incorporate it moving forward. I would say the number one benefit is there has been no shortage of investment to increase productivity, right? There's been we invested in technology. We have invested in office spaces. We invest in leadership development, time management courses, there's been no shortage. And yet it wasn't any of these that move the needle at all. It was sending people home and giving people the space and getting them out of the environment that was perfectly designed to keep them from being able to go to work time. And so, the number one lesson is when you give people space and autonomy and flexibility, they can produce, they can get more work done. And so we want to make sure we actually give them the chance to do that moving forward.

Brian Lord:

Yeah. And that's one of those interesting things like it- like my question, the end question here is like, how do you determine that? But I know one case for me personally, is we had a thing where like, "Hey, let's get all these different updates done. And so one person's idea was to put everybody in the conference room, all talking and trying to do this detail-oriented stuff." And for me being more of an introvert like that was like, they're like, man, you messed up on all these different things. Like, well, you put me in the worst position to do it. Now I can brainstorm in that, but I can't do detail-oriented work. How does someone decide where their employees are most productive?

Curt Steinhorst:

Great. And there's actually, there's actually interesting research in environmental psychology on this, that the, the places that we occupy shape what we attend to and our capacity to do it. I think we start there. Just recognizing that your space is helping or hindering you, especially if you're a company that's trying to consider, bring people back into the office. If you're going to bring them back into an office that was primarily designed to save costs, then you're basically setting them up for failure. So the first is if it's a, if it involves abstract thinking like I need to be strategic, I need to think creatively. We actually want to be in places that we can see outside and the further out we can see the better. So windows are really powerful there. Number two, if we're doing tedious work, that is doesn't require heavy thinking, but it just requires activity. Like I got to reply to a bunch of emails. There's a lot of evidence that background noise can help. I, coffee shops are a great, good place for that now. What is unfortunate is I can't really think of any activity at work that benefits from you sitting in a room with all your colleagues talking to you. Like, there's just not one. So it's like, oh, the open office concept, it failed, it doesn't work. The thing is if we move towards like enclosed spaces where people are actively collaborating, what makes that powerful is we still want to create barriers to things that aren't related. That's the key is how does the space that we have contain and, and cohesively reinforce the one area and type of activity we're trying to do.

Brian Lord:

How does it work with different employees? Because you've got, you know, I know you're working on a lot of research right now when it comes to focusing for different people and, you know, kind of those personality tests. How can you do it as a leader where it's fair, but also, you know, this person works better in an office with a lot of people. This person works better in a cave in their basement, which is basically me. So like what, what are some different ways that you can, you can determine that?

Curt Steinhorst:

I think at this moment, perhaps more than any other, the concept of a team charter, or we call it an Attention Alliance is critical. Another thing that the pandemic taught us was that people are most productive in different ways, and they're usually more aware of it than the bosses. And so we don't want to come back to the lowest common denominator, right? Like we're all going to be miserable here, right? This is a very bad idea. So, so I think it starts by getting together as a team and, and, and, and really asking basic questions like the simple categories. Number one is when are we when we're allowed to be fully available or when do we need to be fully available to each other? When are we allowed to be fully not available through, to what channels of communication we're using for what purposes? And then number three is I work best under these conditions. I will struggle to work well under these conditions. And then, we figure out how the team can re or reorganize the workflow to allow for that difference, but also to allow for the collaboration that needs to occur.

Brian Lord:

You know, somebody else has come up through a lot of this is burnout. You know, where do you recognize that you know, kind of, where does that stem from and how do you solve it?

Curt Steinhorst:

Yeah, I think this is a place where a lot of the common suggestions just feel hollow. Well-being should be on the map. This is important. We don't want people burned out, but the idea that the best solutions are to add a yoga class or mindfulness, and look, I'm a big proponent of mindfulness, but the idea that that's actually what's driving us, it's, it's almost like saying you're burnout because your work sucks. So we're going to give you yoga. So you think less about how much your work sucks. Like I but really be looking at burnout. It's, I'd be saying what is it about the way we're asking people to work? The amount of things we're asking of them to do? And the system that we're asking them to operate within that is that is beyond what is a reasonable capacity because work actually is, can be one of the most enjoyable things. The thing we do with most of our life, is an incredibly important thing for us to actually enjoy instead of hate. And, and so, so I wouldn't say we want to think more about how we supplement work, but, but don't look at the work, like no solve burnout by looking at what the work actually is.

Brian Lord:

You know, what are some of the steps that you've taken? I know I'm always curious to this one, I've talked to experts. What are some things that you personally have done over the past year and a half to change how you approach work?

Curt Steinhorst:

Yeah, so the office that I had in my house was very, very rarely used, and then it became permanently used. And so I added a standing location in my office. So I'm a big proponent of moving. There's a lot of evidence that says we're able to focus longer and even reading retention goes up, learning goes up. So I have a spot that I stand. I have a spot that I sit and do work. And then I have a chair that is away from any monitor that is where I do journaling and processing around. And there's a whiteboard right there. So I have three different stations in my office. That's really the most important thing that I've done. I think the next critical ingredient for me has been just this mantra: "When I'm stuck, move." Like, it's like if I'm feeling anxious, it's every day, there's a, there's going to be a walk. There might be a jog, it might be a workout, but I, I, in the past, I've, I've kind of just tried to ignore that, but I, as I've struggled, just like everyone else has, I've found that there's nothing that has helped me more than a, than a short stroll through nature.

Brian Lord:

You know, one of the things you also talk a lot about are, is generations. You know, how has that, how has the pandemic from an attention standpoint affected different generations as they've come through this time?

Curt Steinhorst:

I think one of the most fascinating and unexpected learnings when it comes to generations is that the generation that is most associated with never wanting to be in the same room with people is, you know, they go on dates virtually, right? The Gen Z they're, they're supposed to, they're supposed to never want to be in person. Flexibility was the big buzzword for them before. And what we're finding is that they're the generation that has struggled the most working from home. So they're the ones that need the office. And so that's contrary to most people's perspective. Now it's actually thirties and forties who have already established themselves. They know their workflow, the relationships that they have already existed, they're the most resistant to coming back because they don't need it, but the younger generation does need it. And I think that's a big finding. Another aspect that we're seeing is the role of distrust in institutions that have continued to rise the optimism around technology, especially for younger generations, I would have expected that social media- I'm very aware of some of the consequences of social media in terms of mental health, but largely Gen Z sees social media as a net good and a place they want to primarily communicate moving forward. So these are just a few of the really interesting dynamics in play.

Brian Lord:

What are some of the things that companies can really do to set themselves up for the future, for future success in the next year, five years in that pathway?

Curt Steinhorst:

Number one, we're in a moment of constant uncertainty and there's no end to the data that is supposed to inform what they should do. And, and, you know, most of the data is obvious because people would prefer, it turns out to sleep until 9:00 AM and roll out of bed and get on the Zoom call in their jammies to an hour-long commute. Right. But, but in moments of incredible uncertainty, I think it's critical for leaders not to commit to a policy when we are continually uncovering what will actually work most. And so what I would say is, instead of saying that, the way I solve uncertainty with certainty is by locking down corporate-wide policies that often are antagonistic to their people. It's to humanize the way you're communicating transparently communicate and acknowledge that we're, we're, we're continually trying to make sense of it. And I was just working with a client and, you know, they sent out the guidelines on remote work. I said, why don't we start by saying our goal is to do what is best for each of you. And we want to hear from you- like we care about you. So get rid of the jargon find ways to be a person in every one of your communications.

Brian Lord:

Well, Curt, thank you so much for coming on and being a part of the Beyond Speaking Podcast.

Curt Steinhorst:

My pleasure, Brian.

Beyond Speaking is hosted by Brian Lord and produced by Eric Woodie

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